Social Media — Geotagging poses security risks

FORT BENNING, Ga. — “Is a badge on Foursquare worth your life?”
The ques­tion was posed by Brit­tany Brown, social media man­ag­er of the Online and Social Media Divi­sion at the Office of the Chief of Pub­lic Affairs. It may sound out­landish, but in the age of social geo­t­ag­ging, it can be a real­i­ty.

Pho­tos from smart­phones are geo­t­agged even when the user is unaware. Smart­phone users can adjust their pri­va­cy set­tings to lim­it who can view their geo­t­agged loca­tions.

There are a num­ber of loca­tion-based social media appli­ca­tions and plat­forms, includ­ing Foursquare, Gowal­la, SCVNGR, Shop­kick, Loopt and Whrrl, cur­rent­ly on the mar­ket. They use GPS fea­tures, typ­i­cal­ly in the user’s phone, to pub­lish the person’s loca­tion and offer rewards in the form of dis­counts, badges or points to encour­age fre­quent check-ins.

Secu­ri­ty risks for the mil­i­tary:

A deployed ser­vice member’s sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness includes the world of social media. If a Sol­dier uploads a pho­to tak­en on his or her smart­phone to Face­book, they could broad­cast the exact loca­tion of their unit, said Steve War­ren, deputy G2 for the Maneu­ver Cen­ter of Excel­lence, or MCoE.

“Today, in pret­ty much every sin­gle smart­phone, there is built-in GPS,” War­ren said. “For every pic­ture you take with that phone, it will auto­mat­i­cal­ly embed the lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude with­in the pho­to­graph.”

Some­one with the right soft­ware and the wrong moti­va­tion could down­load the pho­to and extract the coor­di­nates from the meta­da­ta.

War­ren cit­ed a real-world exam­ple from 2007. When a new fleet of heli­copters arrived with an avi­a­tion unit at a base in Iraq, some Sol­diers took pic­tures on the flight­line, he said. From the pho­tos that were uploaded to the Inter­net, the ene­my was able to deter­mine the exact loca­tion of the heli­copters inside the com­pound and con­duct a mor­tar attack, destroy­ing four of the AH-64 Apach­es.

Staff Sgt. Dale Sweet­nam, of the Online and Social Media Divi­sion, said geo­t­ag­ging is of par­tic­u­lar con­cern for deployed Sol­diers and those in tran­sit to a mis­sion.

“Ide­al­ly, Sol­diers should always be aware of the dan­gers asso­ci­at­ed with geo­t­ag­ging regard­less of where they are,” he explained.

Gen­er­al haz­ards for fam­i­ly mem­bers:

While espe­cial­ly rel­e­vant for those in the mil­i­tary, cau­tions about geo­t­ag­ging extend to any­one who uses that fea­ture.

Face­book is in the process of rolling out Time­line, a new lay­out that includes a map tab of all the loca­tions a user has tagged.

“Time­line presents some unique secu­ri­ty chal­lenges for users who tag loca­tion to posts,” Sweet­nam said.

“Some of those indi­vid­u­als have hun­dreds of ‘friends’ they may nev­er have actu­al­ly met in per­son, he explained. “By look­ing at someone’s map tab on Face­book, you can see every­where they’ve tagged a loca­tion. You can see the restau­rants they fre­quent, the gym they go to every­day, even the street they live on if they’re tag­ging pho­tos of their home. Hon­est­ly, it’s pret­ty scary how much an acquain­tance that becomes a Face­book ‘friend’ can find out about your rou­tines and habits if you’re always tag­ging loca­tion to your posts.”

Most of the appli­ca­tions let peo­ple lim­it who can see their check-ins to friends or friends of friends.

“A good rule of thumb when using loca­tion-based social net­work­ing appli­ca­tions is do not become friends with some­one if you haven’t met them in per­son,” Sweet­nam said. “Make sure you’re care­ful about who you let into your social media cir­cle.”

Even if there is noth­ing clas­si­fied about an individual’s loca­tion, a series of loca­tions post­ed online over the course of a month can cre­ate a pat­tern that crim­i­nals can use.

“We live in a dif­fer­ent world now,” War­ren said.

“If some­one were going to get a hold of your phone, they could fig­ure out a lot about who you are. It’s like a bea­con that’s always out there com­mu­ni­cat­ing with tow­ers and plot­ting your moves on a com­put­er some­where. Lit­er­al­ly, if you don’t turn off that fea­ture on your phone peo­ple are going to be able to recre­ate your whole day.”

Ways to stay safe:

“In oper­a­tions secu­ri­ty, we talk about the adver­sary,” said Kent Grosshans, MCoE OPSEC offi­cer. “The adver­sary could be a hack­er, could be ter­ror­ists, could be crim­i­nals; some­one who has an intent to cause harm. The adver­sary picks up on pieces of infor­ma­tion to put the whole puz­zle togeth­er.”

Grosshans sug­gests dis­abling the geo­t­ag­ging fea­ture on your phone and check­ing your secu­ri­ty set­tings to see who you’re shar­ing check-ins with.

“If your husband’s deployed and you go ahead and start post­ing all these pic­tures that are geo­t­agged, now not only does an indi­vid­ual know your husband’s deployed and he’s not at home, but they know where your house is,” he said.

Ulti­mate­ly, it’s about weigh­ing the risks.

“Do you real­ly want every­one to know the exact loca­tion of your home or your children’s school?” Sweet­nam said. “Before adding a loca­tion to a pho­to, Sol­diers real­ly need to step back and ask them­selves, ‘Who real­ly needs to know this loca­tion infor­ma­tion?’ ”

Grosshans said it’s as impor­tant to Sol­diers as to fam­i­ly mem­bers.

“Be con­scious of what infor­ma­tion you’re putting out there,” he said. “Don’t share infor­ma­tion with strangers. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. There’s no pulling it back.”

U.S. Army

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